John Singer Sargent, “The Misses Vickers” (1884)

John Singer Sargent, "The Misses Vickers" (1884)
John Singer Sargent, “The Misses Vickers” (1884)

This was painted after “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” and has considerably more warmth. Does it have as much depth? The initial reviews of this painting were savage; the online John Singer Sargent gallery has a great discussion of them as well as the painting itself. For comparison, what the critics found far superior (worth a write-up, too).

This painting uses a lot of handsome, dark browns that can either be seen as creating a dramatic darkness or a more casual, familiar background. I tend to think there is heightened drama in the white dress, bright skin and background porcelain against those browns. Still, if I’m correct, the drama is being heightened for a trivial scene. One girl seems to be daydreaming, looking past the viewer. The other is flipping the page of a magazine with so much “flair” she cannot possibly be reading it. Finally, a chair is crammed next to the two other sisters, and that sister is looking square at the viewer with the look that Harrison Ford gets from that girl in class at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene is obviously staged.

I’ll go further than the online commentary I’ve read. Yes, these are three modern women who can do whatever they want; the women here are between 18-21 years of age and are incredibly playful. The key to the painting is whom they’re being playful toward. The art is so staged that we have to think of the painter as part of the picture. They’re teasing him in different ways. One is looking past everyone else, as if she has boys on her mind or something. The other is trying to strike a pose as she reads and might start giggling if provoked rightly. Then there’s one making eyes and leaning toward the painter. None of this is serious and that’s the point. This is a portrait that deconstructs itself, weirdly enough giving us these women at a moment that matters to them. They’re carefree and sisterly, and it is fun to behold.

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